Oncology doctors push back against cost of cancer drugs

Oncologists are so irked over the rapidly escalating cost of drugs used to treat their patients that they are making fairly radical policy proposals and have begun monitoring prices for treatments.

Most new cancer drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year cost more than $120,000 for a year-long regiment. That's also pushed up the cost of an extra year of life for a cancer patient from $54,000 in 1995 to $207,000 in 2013, according to the Fiscal Times.

That has prompted more than 100 oncologists to decry the rising drug prices in the most recent issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Their commentary noted that along with the increases, cost shifting by insurers means many patients have to shoulder up to 30 percent of the pricetag for such drugs. Even insured patients can have outstanding bills of between $80,000 and $100,000, putting them deeply into debt.

"Patients with cancer then have to make difficult choices between spending their incomes (and liquidating assets) on potentially lifesaving therapies or foregoing treatment to provide for family necessities (food, housing, education)," the doctors wrote. "This decision is even more critical for senior citizens who are more frequently affected by cancers and have lower incomes and limited assets."

The physicians proposed that FDA reviews of new cancer drugs should also include a mechanism for determining a fair price.

Meanwhile, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is building a cancer drug database that would not only score the drug's effectiveness, but also list is price, NPR has reported. Richard Schilsky, M.D., ASCO's chief medical officer, said the idea was to expose oncologists to more price and comparative effectiveness data.

"This is one of the real difficulties with the U.S. healthcare system is that the cost of almost any kind of treatment are largely invisible to either the providers of that treatment or the patients who are receiving that treatment," Schilsky told NPR.

ASCO members have become increasingly critical of the rising cost of cancer drugs, with a prominent oncologist blasting the trend at the organization's recent annual conference.

To learn more:
- read the Fiscal Times article 
- check out the Mayo Clinic Proceedings article 
- here's the NPR segment